Taming the Watchdog? Google is the Grand Patron of Europan Journalism

Since 2013 Google has funded Euro­pean journalism with more than 200 million euros. This makes Google the sovereign patron of European journalism. The ambitious study Google, the media patron How the digital giant ensnares journalism from 2020 documents Google’s role as patron. And the study is really worth a read.

According to the 125-pages study Google’s rise to media patron began in France as a respond to political pressure – that the company’s managers has described as a “wake­ up call” to the corporation. In 2013 Google thus set up a fund (60­ million ­euro) to support French press publishers’ innovation projects. The French fund became the blueprint for the Digital News Initiative (DNI) that Goog­le launched throughout Europe in 2015. The core element was the 150­ million­ euros Digital News Innovation Fund that the compa­ny used to promote innovative projects from 2015 to 2019. The money has been given through fellowships grants, journalism conferen­ces and in other ways to hundreds of established media companies, start­ ups, individuals, and research institutions throughout Europe ‘to engage in innovation projects’.

From 2019-2021 alone, Google committed a further 300 million dollars for journalism under the name Google News Initiative (GNI), Google’s “effort to help journalism thrive in the digital age“.

Germany is the Largest European Beneficiary
As an example, Google organises journalism conferen­ces and finances fellowships through Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Since 2015, they have received over one million pounds from Google annually for its studies on the use of digital media.

In February 2020 the following was announced on Reuters Institute’s website: “The Google News Initiative and Oxford University have agreed on an extension to the current grant for the Reuters Institute Digital News Report and the related Digital News Project, for a further three years from 2021 to 2023.” Further down the text Oxford University states the ‘academic independence’ of this Digital News Report that receives funding from Google: “The Reuters Institute Digital News Report is a unique independent academic study which has been supported by a wide range of partners since its creation in 2012“.

The UK, where University of Oxford is situated is only the third largest beneficiary of funding from Google. The greatest is Germany, where respected news organisations like the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Der Spiegel, Zeit Online, the Funke Mediengruppe, DuMont, and Gruner +, have received funding. In Germany alone, Google provided 21.5 million euros of funding from its DNI Fund for media projects from 2016 to 2019.

Wag the dog?
What about the arms length principle, when academia and the media industry eat money from the world’s leading surveillance capitalist?

Well, the funding is given as “no­strings grants” – that is with out any strings attached – which makes the puppets free to dance as they please. But as any critical journalist would know – and as the the report shows – things are not that simple.

The study states that “At no point in any of the interviews did anyone claim that Google had attempted to influence them with its DNI Fund. On the contrary, many of the respondents whose media organisa­tions received Google funding rejected even the notion of they might have been manipulated”. No arms lengths problems documented. 

But, in terms of editorial independence, according to the study, “there is evidence to suggest that Google used the Digi­tal News Initiative as an enabler on regulatory issues, allowing the company to push its own political interests”. This is both regarding potential impacts of the EU copyright reform and the e-Privacy Regulation and regarding other cases.

The study concludes: “Google thus uses its News Initiative not only to maintain relations with the media indus­try, but also as an argument to lobby the EU Commission in Brussels”

Preference for data projects and robot journalism
All in all, only around six percent of DNI funds were disbursed to non­profit media (around six million euros), but almost 75 percent went to commercial media (some 100 million euros). Thus, in this contexts innovation does not seem to resonate with startups.

In an interview Ludovic Blecher, Head of Google’s DNI fund, is asked how to define innovation, and he answers that: “It depends on your starting point. In the media land­ scape, innovation is not the same for a small player as it is for a legacy player with hundreds of years of history and it is different depending on the country. So, we asked people to explain to us why their project is innovative and to give us indicators to help us assess the level of innovation depending on their starting point”.

But the study concludes, that there appears to be a “clear pref­erence for projects relating to data and robot journalism”. Seen through this prism innovation seem to be resonating with more digitization and datafication of the sector. This is not surprising seen through the lens of how Google are world leadning in data monetization.

What is also not surprising is that the study’s data analysis suggests that Google’s funding of the media industry is guided by existing economic struc­tures and probably even works to reinforce them: the rich get richer. But what does seem odd is when one beneficiary journalist describes Googles money as: “development aid”…

Partners or Frenemies?
Google describes its relationship with the media as a “partnership,” and likes to call media com­panies ‘partners in its public communications’ – whereas these ‘partners’ don’t really like this term. “The word “frenemy” to describe the corporation, a port­ manteau of “friend” and “enemy,” comes up in five interviews”, it reads.

No matter the words to describe the patron’s relationship to its beneficiaries, Google’s various forms of sponsor­ship ensure that the company always has a say in debates regarding the future of the news media. This also happens at conferences and other events.

The most prestigious of Google’s events for the media industry where the future of media is also discussed is “Newsgeist,” an “uncon­ference” organised by Google – together with the Knight Foundation in the US, on its own in Europe – to bring together “practitioners and thinkers from the worlds of journalism, tech­nology, and public policy,” as it claims on the event website (newsgeist.org, undated). This is a clear example that : “The close ties that tech corporation Alpha­bet and its subsidiary Google maintain with the news industry are, however, not just about money. Technology is also a crucial aspect – after all, publishing on the internet is practi­cally unthinkable without Google”.

Defining a Generation of Media Professionals
Google also keeps themselves continuously relevant to the media industry by regularly organising training all around the globe in the use of Google tools required for research and day­-to­day-work in the newsroom, “examples including “Storytelling with Google Earth,” “Data Journalism,” “Investigative Reporting,” and “Verification” (Google News Initiative 2020a). In the process, Google’s focus is on multipliers: a “Train the Trainer” programme was developed together with the Society of Professional Journalists and, according to the company, has already provided training in the use of Google products to more than 20,000 journalists in the US and Canada alone (Society of Professional Journalists 2020)”. Moreover Google­ funded industry events, fellowships, and training programmes giving young journalists a step up on the career ladder not only gives Google a seat at the table during industry discussions; Thus, Google is also defining a generation of budding media professionals.

Journalistic Transparency – also for Journalists?
It is no news that google’s algorithms are hidden in a black box, but journalists are known for their transparency. Therefore it is perhaps a surprise that the majority of beneficiaries espouse transparency regarding specific fund­ing amounts. To be more precise: According to the study only one of the ten biggest beneficiaries in Germany was happy to pro­vide specific figures regarding the funding. That was Der Spiegel, who received some 1.5 mil­lion euros. 

About the study

  • The  study  a project of the Otto Brenner Foundation (OBS) Frankfurt am Main 2020.
  • It was jointly published on netzpolitik.org (in German) and in the European Journalism Ob­servatory (in English) (Fanta/Dachwitz 2018).
  • It uses a data analysis of over 600 media projects funded by Google in Europe and 25 interviews with German publishing managers and digital journalists.
  • Find the study here

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